Helene Wecker received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University in New York. Her fiction has appeared in Catamaran and the online magazine Joyland. She has read from her stories at the KGB Bar in Manhattan and the Barbershop Reading Series in San Francisco. A Chicago-area native who has made her home in Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, she now lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter. THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is her first novel.
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MF: Your debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, combines Jewish and Arab folk mythology with the history of the immigrant experience. Did you have specific goals and intentions when writing this book? If so, do you feel you achieved them?
HW: When I was at Columbia getting my MFA, I started writing a series of short stories that combined tales from my Jewish family and from my husband’s Arab-American family. I was trying to bring out the parallels in our families, the themes that echo between them, specifically around immigration to the U.S.. Our families have both had to wrestle with issues of language and culture and displacement, and how being an immigrant (or the child of one) makes you feel perpetually like a stranger in a strange land. But the problem was that my stories weren’t very good. A few came out all right, but the rest were kind of bland and boring. I started soliciting advice, and a friend in my workshop suggested I add an element of the fantastical, since she knew I was a fan of fantasy and sci-fi. So that really was the seed of it. Instead of looking at the immigrant experience through the lens of my own family, I had these two supernatural characters to play around with. And they really did let me address the immigrant experience more freely than through my own family stories, because the fun of the supernatural is that it allows us to take an element of humanity and blow it up out of proportion to really examine it. So where before I might’ve had an immigrant woman trying to figure out how to buy her groceries, now I had a golem who had to learn how to eat so she could pass as human. So I really do think I accomplished what I set out to do, but in a way I hadn’t originally imagined.
MF: Michael Alec Rose of BookPage.com says of The Golem and the Jinni, “The book’s ironic realism…comes close to the spirit of fantasy masters Tolkien, Rowling and Clarke.” That’s elite company. When you hear something like that are you awed or do you feel pressure to follow up with something spectacular?
HW: Oh goodness, both! I mean, it’s insanely flattering. Writing this book was pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so it’s wonderful to know that readers like Mr. Rose think it was worth the effort. But when I read that quote, I kind of want to hide under the bed and stress-eat Oreos. God knows, my goal isn’t to be the next Tolkien or Rowling or Clarke. It can’t be, because that way lies absolute paralysis. I spent my early twenties not writing a single thing, because I was terrified of failing. But what I hadn’t learned yet is that writing is all about failure, it’s a continual process of failure. The novel will never be the shining vision in your head; there’s always a problem to wrestle with. It’s that Beckett quote: “Try again, Fail again. Fail better.” If I start to think everything I write has to approach Tolkienesque quality, I might as well throw my MacBook out the window right now.
MF: Susann Cokal reviewed The Golem and the Jinni in The New York Times and said she wished “the two main characters would cross paths a bit sooner.” And mentions “The sometimes slow pace.” Do you read reviews? Do Cokal’s comments make you want to change things in your novel?
HW: Actually, I’ve seen those two comments pretty often, both in professional reviews and reader reviews. (I read lots of reviews. Sometimes if I’m in a perverse mood I go to Amazon and read all the one-star comments.) I knew that I’d be straining reader patience by having them meet relatively late in the book – I think it’s about a quarter to a third of the way through? But I decided to do it anyway. Both the Golem and the Jinni had a lot of learning to do before they could meet. I wanted them each to have their own problems, their own perspectives. Because they’re both in such a new situation, if they’d met too early, they would’ve been too terrified of each other to interact – or, the other side of the coin, they would’ve clung to each other, which I didn’t want either. The Golem in particular had to grow quite a bit before meeting the Jinni, because she’s so impressionable by nature. I didn’t want him to overwhelm her; she needed to be relatively solid in herself before she could be a match for him. As for the sometimes slow pace, yeah, I agree with that. Pacing is insanely hard to get right, and looking at my book now, I wish I could’ve smoothed it out a little more. I guess that’ll be one of my challenges for the next one.
MF: Curt Schleier of The Jewish Daily Forward said, “The book is so good that I wonder if there was some other-worldly power involved in its creation.” Fess up. Was there a Golem or a Jinni sitting on your shoulder as you wrote?
HW: Ha! None that I know of. Although I have to admit, I was more bullheaded and persistent about this book than I’ve been about anything else in my entire life. There were a number of times when it seemed that the sensible thing would be to chuck it and start something new, or just “take a break from writing for a while” (which inevitably would’ve stretched longer and longer until, whoops, it’s been years and I haven’t written a thing). But for some reason I kept going every time, which, believe me, is not my normal behavior. Usually I’m the queen of abandoned projects. So maybe there was something on my shoulder, slapping me upside the head every time I thought about quitting.
MF: What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing your novel to life?
HW: Oh, where to start? First, the research was a huge job in itself. I had no idea what life was in 1899 New York. I ended up in the basement of the Columbia University library, digging up old maps and census data. At first about half my writing time was spent on research, just familiarizing myself with Jewish and Syrian-American culture at the turn of the century, and Bedouin culture, and all the old myths and stories. Then I had to decide exactly what the Golem and the Jinni could and couldn’t do. I didn’t want to make them so powerful they could just magic themselves out of their problems. But if they were too weak, they wouldn’t be as interesting. This took a whole lot of fine-tuning, and endless drafts. As far as logistics went, about three years into writing the book I realized I had about a million different characters, all with their own threads that would have to be accounted for. I pared them back and reorganized them, and then did it all again a few years later, just to keep things manageable. Even with all that, I still had to rewrite the ending at the last minute. The first ending just wasn’t emotionally satisfying. It tied up all the loose ends, but felt a little dead inside. So I went back to the drawing board, with input from my agent and editor, and came up with something that worked much better. It was a hair-raising experience, but absolutely worth it.
MF: For those interested in further exploring the mythology and history in which The Golem and the Jinni is based, where should they start?
HW: For golems, I’d recommend reading the tales of the medieval Golem of Prague, built by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic violence. There are golem stories that predate the Golem of Prague, but that’s the archetypal golem story, and the most famous as well. Then you can read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which, besides just being a fantastic book, describes what happens to the Golem of Prague during World War II. For jinn, find a selection of tales from the Thousand and One Nights (preferably not from the Burton translation, which is really outdated and full of his own opinions). And then read G. Willow Wilson’s wonderful Alif the Unseen, which features a really entertaining jinni named Vikram.
MF: What cultural value do you see in Magical Realism? For those not familiar with the genre, would you mind recommending two or three novels?
HW: I see a ton of cultural value in magical realism, not to mention psychological value. It allows us to externalize aspects of ourselves, give them a name and a shape, and makes them large enough to really look at. If you take our fear of aging and death, say, our longing for immortality, and blow it up and externalize it, you get a vampire. Now you can examine that fear from all angles, in a way you couldn’t before, and tell a fun, scary story too. I keep coming back to a Benjamin Percy quote I read recently, where someone asked him if he thought the trend of fantastical literary fiction would continue. He replied, in effect, “Realism is the trend. That’s what people don’t understand.” His point was that if you look at the entire timeline of human storytelling, realism only occupies a relatively recent sliver of it. We keep coming back to the magical, the fantastical. It satisfies a very particular desire. As for what books I’d recommend, there’s always Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is sort of the king classic novel of magical realism. Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a really creepy and gorgeous specimen, kind of a mix of horror and magical realism, from back before the term “magical realism” was in circulation. And Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, of course – the history of modern India, told through a telepathic boy with a magical nose.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
HW: The worst was probably at Columbia, when someone read a short story of mine and said, “Your heart wasn’t in this one.” It was awful because he was right – the story was shoddy work that I was trying to pass off as better than it was, and he saw straight through me. Pretty embarrassing. The best compliment (besides Mr. Rose’s up there) came when I gave a reading, and someone in the audience told me that my story made her want to be in front of a campfire, with a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa. It was a while ago, before I was ever published, but I think I’ll always remember that.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
HW: Well, to be honest, “polished and engaging writing” counts for about 95% of it, if not more. Otherwise, I’d say: First, personalize your pitches, don’t just do the fire-hose thing. A generic, impersonal cover letter sets you off on the wrong foot, and then your story has to work harder to make up for it. Second, don’t get so bound up in social media and blogging and all the stuff you feel you “have” to do that you forget to actually write. (Believe me, I’ve struggled with this one.) Third, and this one is important, find your support group. Maybe it’s a group of writers in your city, maybe it’s a an online community. Writing is a crazy-making endeavor, and you need people around you who understand the value in what you’re trying to accomplish. They’re the ones who’ll set you straight when the voices in your head whisper that it’d be easier to just quit.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
HW: Hard to say, since so many of the books I love take place in worlds I’d never, ever want to live in. Maybe Harry Potter? Rowling made that world feel very enticing, exciting and cozy. But hopefully after the last book, once everything’s calmed down. Really, I just want Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen, with all the self-stirring pots.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.
The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
Click here for Missy’s review of The Golem and the Jinni
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